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Culture Books


Four recent memoirs


Tara Westover

Book critics love this well-written memoir by Tara Westover. That’s probably because it fits their idea of how conservative, homeschooling Mormons live. Her junkyard-owning father distrusted the government. He stockpiled food, water, and weapons for the coming apocalypse. Instead of homeschooling, Tara often worked at the salvage yard, running dangerous equipment that frequently hurt her, her brothers, and her father. Though one brother escaped to attend college, another terrorized Tara. Caution: Westover vividly describes emotional and physical violence. Nonetheless, the book is a page-turner that shows the obstacles Westover overcame on her way to earning a Ph.D.

Kitchen Yarns

Ann Hood

The child of an Italian mother from Rhode Island and a Navy man from Indiana, writer Ann Hood grew up in two food cultures—and this memoir includes recipes from both. It’s through food that Hood recalls her childhood, early adulthood, and marriages. And it’s through food that she processes the grief of failed marriages and the deaths of her older brother, father, and 5-year-old daughter. Although Hood appreciates good cooking (and is currently married to a chef), she’s also a fan of less-exalted foods, understanding how much emotional power each can evoke. Caution: at least one obscenity.

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

Camille Laurens

Critics hated Edgar Degas’ 3-foot sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. The work scandalized the Paris art world in 1881, yet it fascinated Laurens. This nonfiction/memoir delves into the world of the Paris Opera at the end of the 19th century and asks hard questions about Degas’ reasons for portraying the dancer as he did. Long paragraphs and some repetition hurt the book’s flow, but Laurens provides a thoughtful portrayal of Degas, the life of the “little rat” (the name for members of the corps de ballet), and her reasons for feeling connected to the sculpture.

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Dani Shapiro

Shapiro begins this memoir with stories about her deeply rooted identity as the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of prominent Orthodox Jews. Photographs of her family fill her home. Yet an Ancestry DNA test, which she took on a whim, upends her previous assumptions about her parents. Once Shapiro recovers from the shock of her discovery, she sets out to discover her biological father. The story of that search, the eventual reunion with a bio family of whom she’d known nothing, and her new understanding of her identity make this a compelling story. Caution: a few obscenities.

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Bible basics

Trusting the Bible, and applying it 

Joel Beeke in Reformed Preaching (Crossway, 2018) shows how to preach to both minds and hearts, and illustrates his contentions with good analysis of preaching from the Reformation to Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Beeke criticizes sermons filled with subjective storytelling divorced from Biblical truth: Ideally, they should explain “how a sinner must be stripped of his self-righteousness, driven to Christ alone for salvation, and led to the joy of simple reliance on Christ.”

A Legacy of Preaching (Zondervan, 2018, two volumes), edited by Benjamin Forrest and three others, casts a wider net and hauls in five dozen preachers, including Basil of Caesarea, Gregory the Great, Girolamo Savonarola, Balthasar Hubmaier, Matthew Henry, Charles Spurgeon, D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, E.V. Hill, and Jerry Falwell.

Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter Williams (Crossway, 2018) succinctly conveys the great amount of evidence for the trustworthiness of the Gospels: He shows the authors were accurate, the histories support each other, the transmission had been faithful, and the discrepancies are minor. At greater length, Introduction to Bibliology by Jefrey Breshears (Wipf & Stock, 2017) clearly conveys basics about Bible origins, composition, canonicity, and transmission.

Is the Bible at Fault? by Jerry Pattengale (Worthy, 2018) gives examples of misusing the Bible to justify evil, suffering, and bizarre behavior. He succeeds with chapters on self-mutilation, snake handling, sex scandals, apocalyptic messages, and Ku Klux Klan propagandizing. Michael Heiser’s Angels: What the Bible Really Says About God’s Heavenly Host (Lexham, 2018) includes detailed analysis.

The title of Stephen Patterson’s The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle Against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism (Oxford, 2018) is misleading. I thought it might be a useful correction to those who equate Christianity with bad stuff—but Patterson downgrades Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, and Titus, arguing that “every beginning student of the Bible learns that these letters are pseudonymous, forgeries. Paul did not write them.” Oh really? He takes seriously much later cultist texts like the Acts of Judas Thomas. Result: a useless mess.

Paula Fredriksen’s When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (Yale, 2018) also suffers from theological liberalism. Clay Routledge’s Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World (Oxford, 2018) has a promising title but a naturalistic bias that makes it less interesting than the cover suggests. At least Routledge sees how everyone believes in something that science usually cannot prove or disprove.

Turning to better books: Sinclair Ferguson’s In the Year of Our Lord (Reformation Trust, 2018) is a fast-moving and well-written overview of 20 centuries of church history in 210 pages. What Is Man? Adam, Alien, or Ape? by Edgar Andrews (HarperCollins, 2018) gives the Biblical answer. Gary Smith’s The AI Delusion (Oxford, 2018) suggests that many would now give a fourth choice: Man as an almost-outmoded machine. Smith, though, supplies an excellent, brief antidote to triumphalism about artificial intelligence becoming our future monarchs. He also fights technophobic hysteria about jobs disappearing.

Kate Bowler’s Blessed (Oxford, 2018 paperback) explains the prosperity gospel’s Pentecostal roots. Always Be Ready by Hugh Ross with Kathy Ross (RTB, 2018) is the memoir of the astronomer and pastor who counters depression and anxiety by presenting evidence for God’s handiwork. John Wyatt’s Dying Well (IVP, 2018) is a good introduction to how to die Christianly.

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Books on Scripture

The First Testament

John Goldingay

In The First Testament, Goldingay tries to defamiliarize the Old Testament. He uses the accurate transliteration of Hebrew names like Iyyob (Job) and Yesha’yahu (Isaiah) and strives to follow the Hebrew word by word. He substitutes “Pact chest” for Ark of the Covenant and “dwelling” for tabernacle to help readers understand their meanings. Yet he rejects traditional words such as “wisdom” and “woe” for odd translations like “Smartness calls, doesn’t she?” (Proverbs 8:1) and “Hey, people who are smart in their eyes” (Isaiah 5:21). Goldingay doesn’t remove ambiguity or Anglicize syntax. His renderings can freshen the text—or make it alien.


Lindsay Wilson

“God’s purposes are broader than simply saving sinners,” says Wilson, an Australian who teaches Old Testament at Ridley College, Melbourne. Proverbs shows what a wise individual and godly community should look like. Free of jargon, approachable for the non-Hebrew speaker, and pointedly accurate, this commentary clarifies the text without a single superfluous word. It summarizes the main point of each paragraph and section of the book, sets that point in the book’s (and the Bible’s) broader context, and then gives a paragraph or so on the meaning. Readers of Proverbs will find it refreshing.

The New Testament: A Translation

David Bentley Hart

Hart’s translation of the New Testament sometimes seems to mistake archaism for accuracy. Phrases like “persons of aberrant conduct” (2 Peter 2:18) and “labile souls” (2 Peter 2:14) and bombastic footnotes pushing universalism dot the pages. Its stated goal is to translate without two millennia of theological interpretation in the background, but Hart’s own theological predilections are obvious (e.g., KJV’s “justified by faith” in Romans 5:1 becomes, for Hart, “vindicated by faithfulness”). Still, it’s largely an accurate translation, and Hart doesn’t pretend that the Bible is a product of the 21st century.

1 & 2 Peter: Feed My Sheep

William VanDoodewaard

VanDoodewaard (“Dr. Dood” to his students), a church history professor, delivers a compelling commentary on the two epistles of Peter. His prose is dry, but his heart is warm toward Christ and the Word, and he wants readers to love Christ. “Consider how you can grow in serving Him as a member of His holy priesthood,” he implores Christians. “What kind of spiritual sacrifices can you offer up?” This book is clearly one of Dr. Dood’s sacrifices, a meaty offering to his Savior on which God’s people can feast.

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